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Hooper: Kids get a sweet visit from WWE pros


Eighteen kids from the Wilbert Davis Belmont Heights Boys & Girls Club — divided into four teams — entered the Tampa headquarters of PDQ restaurants to determine who crafts the best milk shake.

At stake: the opportunity to have one of their very own creations placed on the PDQ menu.

Each team paraded its shakes before four judges: WWE wrestlers Titus O'Neil and Sheamus, radio personality Corey Dylan, PDQ principal owner Bob Basham, and yours truly.

The best moment for me came as I sampled — sampled being a relative term — each of the shakes.

The best moment for the kids, however, came after the tasting. O'Neil, 39, and Sheamus, 38, offered the group sage advice about appreciating the time and love that people had invested in them.

With humor and humility, the men shared stories about their own struggles.

O'Neil, who promised the kids this wouldn't be the last time they saw him, spoke of a tough upbringing. Sheamus told of the challenges of coming from Ireland as a struggling immigrant.

And just like that, the pair turned a milk shake exercise into a sweeter treat about what it takes to succeed in life. It's a fairly common occurrence for O'Neil, a University of Florida graduate and former Gator football player.

He also has a program with the Hillsborough school district, Champions of Character, which celebrates those who exhibit respect, responsibility and integrity. And he teaches a class at the Academy Prep Center of Tampa.

Did the athletes' message resonate with the kids? Their rapt attention spoke volumes.

"I am sure they took to heart what Titus shared," said Vicki Anzalone, who has worked with the kids all summer. "They can sense when someone really cares and he made that clear."

Anzalone is the founder and head of Where Love Grows, a grass-roots nonprofit that addresses issues of food insecurity among children. She's taken the kids through a summer cooking class series, teaching lessons about how to prepare low-cost, healthy meals at home instead of settling for fast-food options or snack-filled binging.

When I asked if she had any culinary training, she smiled a big smile and simply said, "I'm Italian."

The statement says so much about what drew Anzalone to start the nonprofit in 2013. When she discovered 28 percent of the children in this community live with food insecurity, she didn't point fingers at parents or guardians enduring their own struggles. She didn't assign blame to political leaders or entitlement programs or some other societal challenge. She didn't question her own ability to make a difference.

She just went to work, starting with monthly family dinners for kids. Where Love Grows continues to serve 300 meals a month to kids, and the cooking classes are a natural extension that have grown in popularity since being launched two years ago.

Her reward comes from the kids. Of the group at Wilbert Davis, several have offered to return and help guide the next cooking class.

"It validated this journey more than I could explain," said Anzalone, 56. "We are on the right path regardless of challenges, mainly financial.

"The responses and overflowing love and appreciation from the children we serve fuels me and Where Love Grows. Its a priceless intangible that lasts well beyond our dinners or cooking classes."

Anzalone's efforts are a testimony to what happens when people go beyond storing treasure for themselves and become rich in what really matters.

On this particularly day, what mattered most to Da'nae Turner and Stephanie Hamilton was a fruity concoction they dubbed the Tango Mango milk shake.

While all the teams offered flavorful shakes, Turner and Hamilton zigged where everybody else zagged, moving away from chocolate-caramel- based efforts to something chocked full of real fruit.

They won the contest, and later this year Tango Mango will be sold at PDQ with 100 percent of the proceeds going back to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay.

For all the kids, there may come another time when they reach a crossroads and will have the choice to zig or zag.

As they stand at the intersection of smart decisions and life-altering mistakes, maybe they will see Anzalone's smiling face, or hear Sheamus' words or sense O'Neil's genuine compassion.

That might just be the moment where these folks who gave of their time and love get a real return on their investment.

That's all I'm saying.